SEARCY, Ark. — Braden Wright has taken a lot of snaps as the starting quarterback at Northwest Missouri State, but Saturday afternoon’s 28-9 win over Harding in Searcy, Arkansas, felt like a brand-new experience for the junior.
Feeling in for an injured Mike Hohensee, Wright made his first start since September 2 at Fort Hays State. Twelve weeks later, Wright jogged onto the field against Harding in the second round of the NCAA Division-II playoffs.
“This is my first start since September 2,” Wright said. “I never want to make an excuse, but I just let that get to my head. Being out there for the first time again that early was definitely kind of a new feeling again. It kind of felt like 2018 when I took my first snap, so I can’t have that ever happen again obviously, because that was not the way I wanted to start.”
Wright’s day started slow despite a one-play drive with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Imoni Donadelle for a 7-0 lead with 11:55 left in the first quarter after Northwest’s second fumble recovery of the game.
Harding answered with a typical Harding drive. The Bisons went on a 12-day march with all rushing plays for a touchdown. Harding missed the extra point, but took the lead on the next drive with a field goal for a 9-7 lead.
The Bearcat offense was sputtering and Wright was just 2-for-5 for 29 yards, a touchdown and an interception when Harding punted the ball into the end zone for a touchback with two minutes and 32 seconds left in the half.
The Bearcats opened the drive with a 6-yard run by Al McKeller and then went to work in the hurry-up offense with the experienced Wright.
“They seemed a little bit disturbed by the tempo that we went with right before half,” Northwest coach Rich Wright said.
Braden Wright quickly fired a 7-yard completion to Kaden Davis and an 11-yard strike to Alec Tatum for a pair of first downs.
Harding forced a third-and-10, but Wright had the answer with a 23-yard pass to Tatum. After a sack, Wright went to Tatum twice more for 12 yards and then 15 for another first down.
With 15 seconds left, Harding took a timeout, but had no answer with Wright hitting Davis for a 13-yard touchdown.
“That last drive, just going out there, playing fast and just ripping the ball around,” Wright said. “That is just how you force your way into the rhythm I guess. There is no other way to do it. You just do it.”
The 14-9 halftime lead wasn’t one the Bearcats were willing to sit on, they struck quickly in the third quarter with Wright going deep on a rollout and hitting Tatum for a 63-yard catch and run. McKeller lowered his shoulder for a 10-yard run and again for a 2-yard touchdown to cap the 3-play day with a 21-9 lead.
“It started off the second half the way we wanted to,” Braden Wright said.
Harding attempted to answer with a 17-play drive, but Jackson Barnes blocked a 28-yard field goal attempt and the Bearcat lead remained at 21-9.
“That is the best run defense,” Harding coach Paul Simmons said. “They are leading the country for a reason.”
After a series of defensive stops, Northwest punched their ticket to the regional finals next week at Ferris State. After five McKeller runs to begin the drive, Northwest faced a third-and-9. Wright found Davis for a 58-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
“We knew Al McKeller was a really good back and we wanted to shut down the run,” Harding senior linebacker Dylan Hendricks said. “I think, for the most part, we did that — just had some big pass plays on us.”
After a Drew Dostal interception, the Bearcats ran out the clock and will be heading to Big Rapids, Michigan, next Saturday. Ferris State defeated Grand Valley State 54-20 for the right to host the game which will decide a spot in the national semifinals.
“I think this is hands-down the most difficult region of the four regions in the NCAA Tournament right now,” Rich Wright said. “… We are going to make a trip to Ferris and I know our kids are going to be ready to play and excited.
“I like this group. I like the chemistry of this group. I like the dynamic of this group, so we are just looking forward to the opportunity to make the flight up to Michigan and see what we can do.”
Ferris State has ended the Bearcats’ year the last two seasons in Big Rapids with a 27-21 game in 2018 and a 25-3 game in 2019.
“This is what all of us seniors came back for,” Barnes, who finished with 15 tackles, a fumble recovery and a blocked kick, said.